Sunday, 30 January 2011

Hans Urs von Balthasar: The Meaning of Celibacy

The last section of a 1972 essay by Hans Urs von Balthasar, on priestly celibacy and posted at Communio -International Catholic Review, has a very contemporary resonance in 2011!

... the celibate priest today has to be stronger than his predecessor. He is placed in a sexualised environment and, generally, is deprived of the external guards of the post-tridentine seminary and protected rectory. He is exposed, while the witness of his life is rejected or is met with indifference by non-Christians. He does not get anywhere with it, it does not communicate anything to the people around him. The mighty effort of his witness seems to vanish into emptiness. Hence, he feels frustrated.

But the history of Christian virginity does not begin with Trent. It begins in Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome, to mention only three of the most licentious cities of antiquity. Exactly there, where sin flowered most lushly - and the letters of the Apocalypse show us other telling examples - has Christian virginity its beginning. Not in cloisters, not in closed Christian communities, but in a diaspora where Christians lived scattered, often in pagan households. It had to be and it came to be.

Christian virgins did not live in closed communities, but like members of secular institutes today, they lived dispersed in households and families. It is there that they gave witness, and were perhaps a more fruitful leaven than the later, structured cenobitic communities of Pachomius and Benedict. They understood that their witness has a purpose in itself: it radiates love. It is not something useful, a means, even though it frees the unmarried for the Lord, to be "concerned about the things of the Lord" (1 Cor. 7:34), and thus also frees him for diaconal and presbyteral tasks of the Church.

And if the virgins of earlier periods were respected while the celibates of today are ignored or scorned, let us once more point out that virginity and the cross, and hence disgrace, are closely related. In the Old Testament barrenness was a humiliating disgrace, and rightly so both from a natural and supernatural, theological viewpoint. The barren woman did not contribute to the messianic future. Under the sign of disgrace stood also Mary, pregnant and silent, when Joseph thought of abandoning her.

New Testament virginity should be highly and specially valued by Christians because of this implicit disgrace, and precisely because of disgrace in the eyes of the world. But when Christians themselves do not see this hidden value, because they follow unchristian ideologies, then virginity must again recede into the obscurity of the original disgrace. The darkness of the apparent waste, which is the radical sign of Christ's cross, the dimness of ever-increasing, seemingly meaningless, toil and vexation - be it the plight of keeping house without a competent housekeeper, or living with other priests in a poorly functioning community, or some other burdensome inconvenience - makes us wish to give up this incompetent experiment that seems to be of no benefit to anyone.

Perhaps in a church of the future celibate priests will be in a minority. It could be so. But it also might happen that through the example of the few a new certainty of the rightness and indispensability of this life is kindled in the Church. We might have to go through a period of hunger and thirst, but this very deprivation might call forth new vocations or, rather, might inspire a new generosity, so that the call that is always with us will be answered.

We can trust the instinct of the Christian people. Despite superficial and poor training, the faithful usually manage to distinguish between "progressivist" small talk and truly inspired preaching and catechesis. And even if this instinct would become blinded - and I do not believe it will - the Lord, the true witness of our witnessing, remains with us. Because none of us priests "lives as his own master and none of us dies as his own master ... both in life and in death we are the Lord's" (Rom 14:7ff).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What's to say that allowing married clergy will bring a surge in vocations?

Currently we allow married deacons but they are far and few between.

If married men aren't being ordained into the diaconate why are we so sure they want to be priests?